If you want to learn the history of the world through the artistry of its diverse civilizations, you’re in luck. This season’s slate of museum shows includes spectacular blockbusters with treasures lent from national collections around the globe. Some of these chronicle cultural transformations, like the rise of an international Buddhist art style in Southeast Asia, or the development of a visual language to express Christian beliefs in the Byzantine Empire. Others showcase cultures unfamiliar to most U.S. audiences: The Joseon Dynasty of Korea, for example, and the arts of Liberia and Sierra Leone. And others bring a renewed focus to longtime crowd-pleasers, like the British country house and the rigorous esthetic of the Samurai.
Here’s where to find the top international arts shows this spring:
What: “Lost Kingdoms: Hindu-Buddhist Sculpture of Early Southeast Asia, 5th to 8th Century”
Where: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York (April 14–July 27, 2014)
Using recent excavations, new research, national treasures from Cambodia, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, and Myanmar, and loans from around the world, “Lost Kingdoms” traces the evolution of Southeast Asian sculpture from the era of nature-cults through the arrival of Buddhism and Hinduism to the emergence of Buddhist art as an expression of state identity. The show tracks the ways that religious ideas, rituals, and imagery circulated among the kingdoms through international trade routes, resulting in the emergence of a shared visual language in the service of Mahayana Buddhism.
Left: Ganesha, Quang Nam province, Vietnam, late 7th-8th century, sandstone. Right: Avalokitesvara, Tra Vinch province, Vietnam, 7th century, sandstone. Click through each image for more information.
What: “Heaven and Earth: Art of Byzantium from Greek Collections”
Where: National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (through March 2, 2014); J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles (April 9-August 25, 2014)
The artistic coexistence of Christianity and paganism, the development of a new iconography to express Christian beliefs, and cross-influences among the Byzantines and Western crusaders are among the themes covered in this dazzling show, which chronicles the development of Byzantine visual culture from the fourth to the 15th century. Masterworks and new archeological finds, many never previously shown in the U.S., are among the sculptures, icons, mosaics, frescoes, manuscripts, metalwork, jewelry, glass, embroideries, and ceramics assembled here.
Left: Mosaic with Alkibiades, Greek, late 3rd-early 4th century, stone and glass tesserae on plaster. Right: Two-sided icon with Virgin Hodegetria and Man of Sorrows, Greek, 4th quarter of 12th century, egg tempera on wood, gold leaf. Click through each image for more information.
What: “Treasures from Korea: Arts and Culture of the Joseon Dynasty, 1392-1910”
Where: Philadelphia Museum of Art (March 2–May 26, 2014); Los Angeles County Museum of Art (June 29–September 28, 2014); Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (November 2, 2014–January 11, 2015)
This blockbuster is the first major U.S. survey of the art of Korea’s Joseon dynasty, which ruled from 1392–1910. With more than 150 works from the National Museum of Korea and other collections, the show explores kingship and courtly life, Joseon society, ancestral rites, the place of Confucianism and Buddhism, and Joseon in modern times.
Left: Karma Mirror and Stand, Korea, Joseon Dynasty, 19th century, wood with painted decoration. Right: Śākyamuni Assembly, Korea, Joseon Dynasty, 1653, hanging scroll, colors on hemp. Click through each image for more information.
What: “Nur: Light in Art and Science from the Islamic World”
Where: Dallas Museum of Art (March 30-June 29, 2014)
Organized by the Dallas Museum of Art with the Focus-Abengoa Foundation in Seville (where it is on view through February 9), “Nur” unites treasures from 14 countries–from sundials and astrolabes to illuminated manuscripts, luster-painted ceramics, exquisite metalwork, and precious stones—to look at the ways that art from Islamic lands addresses the theme of light.
Left: Window, Egypt, 15th century, plaster, glass, and wood. Right: Bowl with bird, Iraq, 9th-10th century, luster-painted. Click through each image for more information.
What: “Visions from the Forests: The Art of Liberia and Sierra Leone”
Where: National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C. (April 9–August 17, 2014); Minneapolis Institute of Arts (September 20, 2014-January 18, 2015)
The first show dedicated to the cultural heritage of West African neighbors Liberia and Sierra Leone, “Visions from the Forests” highlights the differences in the art forms produced in the two countries. The exhibition features approximately 75 pieces between the 15th and the late 20th centuries by artists from over a dozen different ethnic groups. The works were assembled by William Siegmann, a scholar and collector who spent many years in Liberia and later became the Brooklyn Museum’s curator of African art. A native of Minneapolis, he donated many of his holdings to the MIA, the organizer of this exhibition.
Left: Female figure, Amara (Pa Jobo), Sierra Leone, mid-20th century, wood. Right: Soldier, Liberia, Africa, date unknown, metal. Click through each image for more information.
What: “Samurai: Beyond the Sword”
Where: Detroit Institute of Arts (March 9–June 1, 2014)
Based on a traveling exhibition from the collection of the Clark Center for Japanese Art and Culture, the museum (currently in the news for other reasons) explores the scope of Samurai culture, from its military hardware to its tea ceremonies, esthetic ideals, and arts patronage. The show also features objects from a post-Samurai era, when weapons and fittings were recycled and given new purposes.
Left: Ichiyusai Kuniyoshi, Chūdayū Aiming with Deadly Precision, Japan, 1848, woodblock. Right: Complete set of armor (tōsei gusoku) with flag, Japan, mid-1700s, iron, lacquer, silk, silver, gold. Click through each image for more information.
What: “Houghton Hall: Portrait of an English Country House”
Where: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (June 22-September 22, 2014); Legion of Honor, San Francisco (October 18, 2014–January 18, 2015); Frist Center for the Visual Arts, Nashville (February 13–May 10, 2015)
Built by England’s first prime minister, Sir Robert Walpole, in the early 1700s, Houghton Hall is the family estate of the Marquesses of Cholmondeley. This sumptuous exhibition features Old Master paintings, Sèvres porcelain, R. J. & S. Garrard silver objects, William Kent furniture, along with sculpture, costume, metalwork, and more, installed in a manner that evokes the splendor of their original setting.
Left: The Saloon, with William Kent armchairs and stools, Houghton Hall, 1725. Right: Sèvres Porcelain Manufactory, Vase from a Set of Three Blue Nouveau Vases, Houghton Hall, 1760s, soft- paste porcelain. Click through each image for more information.
What: “Golden Visions of Densatil: A Tibetan Buddhist Monastery”
Where: Asia Society, New York (February 19-May 18, 2014)
This show is the first to explore the history, iconography, and artistic production—particularly the glittering, multi-tiered memorial stupas—associated with the central Tibetan Buddhist monastery in Densatil, which was largely destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. Meanwhile, at the Rubin Museum, “Bodies in Balance” showcases the art of Tibetan Medicine. And at the Metropolitan Museum, “Tibet and India: Buddhist Traditions and Transfomations” uses sculpture, book covers, illuminated manuscripts, and early Tibetan tangkas to show how esoteric imagery, texts, and Vajrayana ritual practices from North India’s monasteries influenced Tibet’s religious landscape. Also, contemporary artists Gonkar Gyatso and Tenzing Rigdol offer their own takes on Buddhist tradition.
Panel of offering goddesses, Central Tibet, 14th century, gilt copper alloy with inlays of semiprecious stones.
What: “Between Mountains and Sea: Arts of the Ancient Andes”
Where: Blanton Museum of Art, Austin (February 1-August 17, 2014)
The arts of the pre-Inka civilizations of Peru, made between 900 BCE and 1532, are the subject of this collaboration between the Blanton and the Department of Art and Art History at the University of Texas at Austin. Complex textiles and vividly illustrated ceramics are among the highlights of the show, which explores the lifestyle, technological achievements, and ideology of cultures including Paracas, Nasca, Wari, Moche, Chancay, Sicán, and Chimú.
Left: Anthropomorphic Effigy (cuchimilco), Peru, 900-1400 CE, ceramic, slip paints. Right: Bowl with profile birds, Nasca Culture, Peru, 100 BCE – 600 CE, ceramic, slip paints. Click through each image for more information.
Last fall, the Higgins Armory Museum in Worcester, Massachusetts, closed its doors. By 2020, its collection of some 2,000 objects will be fully incorporated into the Worcester Art Museum. This March, the museum offers its first installation of these holdings, with armor and weapons integrated into collections of painting, sculpture, and decorative objects from Europe and beyond.
Left: School of Fontainebleau, Woman at Her Toilette, 1550-1570, oil on panel. Right: Frontplate of a ceremonial gorget, Flemish, 1620-1630, etched and engraved iron with gilding and silvering. Click through each image for more information.
What: “Roads of Arabia: Archaeology and History of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia”
Where: Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (through March 9, 2014); Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri (April 25–July 6, 2014)
The selection of 200 objects that date from Neolithic Age to the 1932 birth of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia arrives in Missouri, continuing a tour organized by the Saudi Commission for Tourism and Antiquities (SCTA) in collaboration with the Louvre.
Left: Tombstone of ‘Abbas, Son of ‘Abdallah, Son of Muhammad, Son of Nasih, al-Ma’la Cemetery, Mecca, Saudi Arabia, 9th century C.E., basalt. Middle: Funerary mask, Tell al-Zayer, Saudi Arabia, 1st century C.E., gold. Right: Anthropomorphic Stele, El-Maakir-Qaryat al-Kaafa, near Ha’il, Saudi Arabia, 4th millennium C.E., sandstone. Click through each image for more information.